Farnese Bull. 2nd century BC or possibly 1st or 3rd century AD Roman copy. On right, a plaster cast.
A remarkable group of sculpture, the Farnese Bull is an excellent example of the realist tendencies of the Hellenistic sculptors. One version was identified by Pliny the Elder as a commissioned work of two Rhodian brothers, Apollonius of Tralles and Tauriscus, from the end of the 2nd century BCE. This might not have been the original, but it is the earliest we know of. Roman copies were later made, and the original piece may have been moved to Rome as well. Excavated in 1545, this version soon after found a home in the collection of Pope Paul III in the Palazzo Farnese. The sculpture measures 3.7 m – almost 12 feet – in height. It is the largest work of sculpture ever recovered from excavation of an ancient site.
Depicted is Dirce, the first wife of Lykos, King of Thebes, being tied to an enraged bull by Amphion and Zethus, two brothers who were avenging the abuse of their mother, Antiope, who stands beside them seemingly unmoved by the violence.
The technical skill of the artists is undeniable; the level of detail is the same on all sides, so it was meant to be seen from all angles, unlike some contemporary works. The anatomical detail is exact, and the draping of fabric is intricate without erring on the side of distraction for which some earlier works have been criticized.
Its large size contributes to a conveyed sense of awe and power. A similar result is due to the (figurative) motion of the piece. It is only a statue – a frozen moment of a desperate struggle wrought from stone. However, though static, the effortful action of the brothers, the bucking of the bull, and Dirce’s resistance is still readily apparent. The viewer understands an intuitive context of the scene; we can imagine how the subject got here and we certainly can see what is going to happen next.
Like many Hellenistic works, there is an almost palpable sense of emotion – in this case, a combination of the brothers’ deliberate violence, the rearing of the bull and the desperation of Dirce give a sense of extreme gravity and tension. Even if the viewer feels that Antiope is receiving that which she deserves, there is no glory or heroism in the brothers binding her to the bull. Instead it comes across as barbaric and invokes a feeling of pity in the viewer – a marked shift from the idealized heroism so fetishized by earlier sculptors. This may be an intentional acknowledgement of a moral grey area, or it could be a secondary effect of the artists’ effort in representing each characters emotion and demeanor as precisely as possible.
Smith, R. R. R. Hellenistic Sculpture: A Handbook. London: Thames & Hudson, 1991. Print.
Gardner, Ernest Arthur A Handbook of Greek Sculpture. Macmillan and co. 1911. eBook.
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